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 Thursday, October 14
Until his dying day, Wilt was invincible
By Chris Sheridan
Associated Press

 Of all his memories of Wilt Chamberlain, the one that stood out for Larry Brown happened long after Chamberlain's professional career was over.

On a summer day in the early 1980s at the Men's Gym on the UCLA campus, Chamberlain showed up to take part in one of the high-octane pickup games that the arena constantly attracted. Brown was the coach of the Bruins back then, and Chamberlain often drove to UCLA from his home in Bel Air, Calif.

"Magic Johnson used to run the games," Brown recalled Tuesday after hearing that Chamberlain, his friend, had died at the age of 63, "and he called a couple of chintzy fouls and a goaltending on Wilt.

"So Wilt said: 'There will be no more layups in this gym,' and he blocked every shot after that. That's the truth, I saw it. He didn't let one (of Johnson's) shots get to the rim."

Chamberlain would have been in his mid-40s at the time, a decade removed from one of the greatest careers any basketball player ever produced. But the advancing years meant little to Chamberlain in terms of physical conditioning.

Into his 50s and his 60s, Chamberlain remained an incredible specimen -- a mountain of a man who was as coordinated and talented athletically as he was imposing physically.

The Cleveland Cavaliers called him in the early '80s and asked him if he'd still be interested in playing. Five or six years later, when Chamberlain was 50, the New Jersey Nets had the same idea.

Neither of those potential comebacks ever came to pass, but the very idea of signing a player so old shows just how well Chamberlain kept himself in shape -- and how shocked people were when they heard he had died.

"I guy in that kind of shape, you can't live forever, but you don't expect him to clock in early," said Don Chaney, a rookie on the 1968-69 Celtics team that lost to Chamberlain's Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy recalled that he hadn't seen Chamberlain at this year's U.S. Open tennis tournament, where Chamberlain was a regular. Brown said he was playing golf with Billy Cunningham two weeks ago when he heard that Chamberlain was ill.

When word came that Chamberlain had died, Brown passed along the news to his team, the Philadelphia 76ers, and told them a story that tried to put one of Chamberlain's greatest accomplishments -- averaging more than 50 points in a season -- into perspective.

"It was a night when someone, Bernard King or Adrian Dantley, scored 50 points," said Brown, who played at Kansas and coached at North Carolina -- the two schools that took part in one of the greatest college games ever, the 1958 NCAA championship game won by the Tar Heels against Chamberlain's Jayhawks.

"It was the 257th time a player other than Wilt had scored 50 or more, but all that did was tie the number of times Wilt did it," Brown said.

Of all Chamberlain's statistical accomplishments -- the 100-point game, the 55-rebound game (against Bill Russell), the five seasons averaging at least 40 points, the 10 seasons averaging at least 20 rebounds -- the one mark that Chamberlain himself considered the most untouchable was his average of 48.5 minutes per game in 1961-62. Except for a six-minute stretch in one game, he played every single minute of every single game -- including overtimes -- that season.

"He came to me in '80-'81 and said Cleveland wanted to sign him and he asked me if I thought he could still play," Brown recalled. "I said 'Yeah,' but I don't know how happy you'd be playing on a limited basis."

That mark for most minutes was also remembered Tuesday by Bulls broadcaster and former NBA center Johnny "Red" Kerr, who played part of one season in Philadelphia with Chamberlain and against him for six more.

Other marveled at how Chamberlain so dominated the game that he brought about more rules changes than any other player.

Years ago, teams could pass the ball over the backboard or take a running start when attempting a foul shot. The former was outlawed because Chamberlain would use the backboard as a screen, cherry-picking passes and converting them into layups; the latter was banned after Chamberlain took a running start, leapt from the foul line and dunked the ball.

Yes, Chamberlain dunked foul shots.

And that was long before Julius Erving or Brent Barry did it (while stepping on the line in the process) in exhibitions.

"I don't think it's fair to compare players in different eras, but he was about as dominant as any one player could be in any sport," Brown said. "I looked at him like he was invincible."

"This is a guy whose impact changed the rules of the game ... he changed the interior part of our basketball game," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

Kerr also brought up a reminiscence shared by many of Chamberlain's contemporaries -- Chamberlain as a nice guy, a friend with even his fiercest competitor, Russell.

"We never saw him upset or mean. His demeanor was such," Kerr said. "Some of the guys who play today are nasty. Michael (Jordan) was nasty. He was the most vicious offensive player. Wilt did his stuff, but I never saw him play angry."

"He was one of those guys who was a nomad," said Lakers vice president Jerry West, a former teammate of Chamberlain's. "One of the things I admired about him, you see the players of today, they have the entourages, but he was the common man. He had no problem going places, no problem being recognized as Wilt Chamberlain. He handled things very well."

Darrall Imhoff remembered the night he had the misfortune of guarding Chamberlain during his 100-point game.

Imhoff, a 6-foot-10 rookie center for the Knicks, picked up his third foul quickly, and when he returned to the game Wilt had 89 points.

"I spent 12 years in his armpits, and I always carried that 100-point game on my shoulders," said Imhoff, who played only 20 minutes in that game before fouling out.

"After I got my third foul, I said to one of the officials, Willy Smith, 'Why don't you just give him 100 points and we'll all go home?' Well, we did."

Two nights later, at Madison Square Garden, Chamberlain tried to go for the century mark again. But Imhoff played all 48 minutes and held him to 54 points. The fans gave Imhoff a standing ovation.

"He was an amazing, strong man," Imhoff said. "I always said the greatest record he ever held wasn't 100 points, but his 55 rebounds against Bill Russell. Those two players changed the whole game of basketball. The game just took an entire step up to the next level."

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